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Presentence Report — Assessment Tainted by Conflict of Interest

State v. Randy D. Stafford, 2003 WI App 138
For Stafford: Robert G. LeBell

Issue/Holding: A mental health professional whose assessment of the sexual assault defendant was incorporated into the presentence report and cited at length by the sentencing judge and who had, unbeknownst to the defense, treated the victim for the six months prior to the assessment, had a conflict of interest that amounted to a new factor requiring resentencing.

Although the grant of relief is based on a new-factor theory (the PSI author’s connection to the victim wasn’t known to the defense) it is the consequential conflict of interest that leads to relief:

¶8. The State, however, misses Stafford’s point. Stafford is arguing that Nooe’s assessment was compromised because she was serving two masters-the victim and the court-and she failed to disclose her dual service to anyone. The precise reason why Nooe undertook the assessment is irrelevant. The fact remains that Nooe’s report, regardless of whether it was for the purpose of treatment or for forensic sentencing purposes, was intended to be before the trial court at sentencing. As a sentencing tool, the report must be accurate, reliable and objective.

The court goes on to find “persuasive” “the reasoning of” State v. Suchocki, 208 Wis. 2d 509, 518, 561 N.W.2d 332 (Ct. App. 1997), namely that the PSI author’s spousal connection to Suchocki’s prosecutor

was sufficient to call into question the objectivity of the PSI as a matter of law and, at the least, raised serious questions as to the fairness of the sentencing process to the defendant….We then acknowledged the importance of the PSI to the sentencing process and recognized that the integrity of the sentencing process demands that the report be accurate, reliable and, above all, objective and concluded that the PSI should have been struck…. These same principles apply to the facts of this case.

(¶¶9, 10, 11).

Clearly, then, relief for Howland could have been based just as easily on the PSI author’s conflict of interest alone, as on the somewhat more intricate theory that the conflict amounted to a “new factor.”

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